Insights on the situation in Ukraine from our human rights experts

  • Date

    Wed 9 Mar 22

Ukraine flag

As the conflict in Ukraine enters week three, we’ve asked some of our human rights experts – all world-renowned leaders in their field – for their thoughts.

Professor Carla Ferstman

Professor Ferstman, experienced human rights professional and legal practitioner, says justice will be difficult to achieve.

“The war in Ukraine has generated an extensive amount of judicial activity in a very short time, with 39 countries having referred the matter to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and the Prosecutor having confirmed that he has commenced an active investigation.

“This demonstrates that the wheels of justice can move quickly when there is the will for this to happen. Nevertheless, justice will be difficult to achieve, given the limits of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression and the (unsurprising) lack of cooperation by Russia.

“It is important to take a long-term view of the justice process, which ultimately will be crucial in helping to determine the truth of what is happening, recognising the suffering of the civilian population, and underscoring that there are consequences for the commission of international crimes and massive violations of human rights.”

Professor Geoff Gilbert

Professor Gilbert, an expert in international criminal law, human rights law and refugee law, says displacement is a major issue.

“Over one million persons have fled the conflict in Ukraine in a week to neighbouring states – there has also been massive displacement within Ukraine. All the neighbouring states are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so they have an obligation to receive those fleeing and to ensure they are not returned to the conflict zone.

“Unlike other displacements in recent years, European countries have kept their borders open for Ukrainian refugees – refugee status should never be exercised in a discriminatory fashion and this approach should be mirrored for other displaced populations.

“As well as those who have made it outside Ukraine, many are trapped within the borders and living in situations of precarity. The international law of armed conflict and soft law, such as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, call on parties to the conflict to allow access by humanitarian actors, such as the ICRC and UNHCR, to facilitate the deliverer of food and medicines in an impartial manner. Where ‘safe corridors’ are created to allow those trapped to move within the conflict zone, parties must respect them, upholding the fundamental principle of distinction between combatants and civilians.”

Professor Kathryn Gilmore

Kathryn Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and Honorary Professor at the HRC, says violations of human rights law are being taken to “new lows”.

“Many conflicts are imposing cruel costs on civilian populations, yet the violent invasion of Ukraine by a United Nations (UN) Security Council “P5” member takes desecration of the UN’s founding principles, and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, to new lows.

“It’s a global crisis long in the making. Repeated failure to defend human rights standards and norms in the face of Member States’ use of force and policies against migration, refugees, international justice, and dissent have left the UN unpracticed and thus inept at being what its own Charter obliges it to be.

“Rule-benders don’t make great rule-defenders. We need, but don’t have, a global governance system that works for the world not as it was, but as it is and as it threatens to become.”

Professor Noam Lubell

Professor Lubell, Professor of International Law of Armed Conflict, says more needs to be done to protect civilians.

“In addition to the alarm raised by the act of aggression in blatant violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, numerous concerns have been raised by the manner in which the Russian military is conducting its operations.

“International Humanitarian Law places an emphasis on the need to do everything feasible to protect civilians from the destructive effects of military operations, and this does not appear to be taking place in the current conflict.

“Notably, using explosive munitions that cause damage across a wide area in an urban environment is highly likely to fall foul of the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. The principle of distinction is at the heart of humanitarian law, and alleged violations will require effective investigations and mechanisms of accountability.”

Human Rights Speaker Series

Professor Noam Lubell will be chairing our latest Human Rights Speaker Series, hosted by the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and the Essex Armed Conflict and Crisis Hub, next Wednesday 16 March.

Professor Carla Ferstman and Professor Geoff Gilbert are two of the speakers at this event which will examine the Ukraine War and the International Protection of Civilians.